English translation from the official periodical of RAIPON “Мир коренных народов живая арктика” (Indigenous Peoples’ World Living Arctic) No. 3, 2000

The history of reindeer herding in the Bystrinskiy Region of Kamchatka

Olga Murashko
IWGIA, Moscow

The Bystrinskiy Region of Kamchatka is in the centre of the peninsula. Its entire area is occupied by the Sredinnyy Range and its offshoots. In the Bystrinskiy Region originate the majority of Kamchatka rivers. The climate there is continental, but it varies with landscape. In the mountains there is snow in summer, while in the valleys, tomato crops are raised. It is a country of unique beauty. There are warm sunny valleys with hot springs, coniferous forests and snowy peaks.

Since ancient times, the region has been a site for small-scale reindeer herding. When Russians first arrived in Kamchatka, Koryaks had already been grazing their reindeer there. But by the year 1800, they left those kindly areas to leave for Chukotka, the Magadan Regions. There were several reasons for that. The wanted to get away from the new administration, which was strange to them – the Koryaks were never baptised and they never paid yasak (the tribute) to the Russian tsars. There was also the desire to escape horrible diseases – in 1770 smallpox epidemic ravaged Kamchatka, followed by the “rotten fever” (most certainly, typhoid fever). Presumably, there were in addition some climate changes handicapping reindeer herding. In fact, climate historians suggest that there was a local warming up of the climate at that time, which led to sleet, ice-up, and starvation of the reindeer, as well as epizootic disease affecting the herds.

During the first half of the 19th century, the population of Central Kamchatka thinned. The number of the Kamchadal sedentary indigenous population also sharply declined due to epidemics. The governor of Kamchatka, V.S. Zavoiko, approached his colleague in Anadyr with a request to return the reindeer herders of Kamchatka who left. Of course, after 50 years not only the children and grandchildren of those who had left many years before returned, but also their neighbors whom they befriended and became related to. The middle of the 19th century in Kamchatka saw the advent of Evens (there were particularly many of them) and Chukchi. More exactly, according to some records in 1852, they obtained from the governor official permission to settle down in the Bystrinskiy. It is not known how long ago the Evens (Lamut) appeared in Kamchatka. Presumably, long before the advent of Russians there had been many such arrivals and departures of Central Kamchatka reindeer herders due to epochal changes in the climate, which were numerous during the past millennia.

It is only known that by the end of the 19th century there were about 500 Evens in the Bystrinskiy Region, and they brought along a reindeer herd whose numbers by the end of the century ranged from 20 to 30 thousand. Reindeer herds were small, the majority of herds numbering 200-500 head, depending on the natural conditions of the clan rangelands.

During the collectivisation campaign, the reindeer were transferred to collective farm and state farm herds. The regional archive contains records of how many reindeer were removed and from what owners. According to these incomplete lists, by 1938 17000 reindeer had been removed from the people. At the same time, the administration attempted to make the people sedentary. The reindeer herders were concentrated in the villages of the Bystrinskiy District. Some older people disobeyed and remained in their camps.

The numbers of the collective farm – state farm herd of the Bystrinskiy District declined to 8000 during the first years of collectivisation, but then gradually grew to reach 21000 by the year 1989. But by 1992, it dropped again to 17 thousand. Today, the reindeer population is a mere 4000.

During the Soviet period, only a small proportion of the local people was engaged in reindeer herding. Large herds were grazed by 3–5 herdsmen. The rest were employed on cattle farms, on pig-breeding and vegetable-raising farms. All the activities were regulated by the increasing non-indigenous administration, and were regarded by indigenous people as peonage.

The numbers of the newcomer population in the Bystrinskiy District during the Soviet power period increased from zero in 1926 to over 2000 in 1989.

In 1991–1992 the state farms in Esso and Anagvai were privatised. All those employed in reindeer breeding were assigned their shares in reindeer. But the indigenous people never received the reindeer. The administration claims that the people did not want to take them. Like elsewhere, the indigenous people don’t know how privatisation proceeded. They don’t even know how many deer their share comprised. Perhaps they were never given a complete, coherent account of the process.

Two reindeer-herding joint-stock companies were established in Esso and Anagvai. Numerous non-resident administrators were retained. Only a few dozen indigenous people continued working as herdsmen. In fact, the majority of shareholders were newcomers, and there was never enough cash for payment; they had to kill reindeer and to sell their meat to pay the bills. Aggravating matters, wolves were said to be particularly aggressive in those years. In that way, over seven years, the reindeer population was reduced to a quarter of its former size.

The role of the villages of Esso and Anagvai, which appeared during the Soviet period “in order to make reindeer herders sedentary”, changed dramatically in the course of time. The entire life in those villages which were situated at some very good site near one another proved to be more suitable to newcomers rather for indigenous people. Hence, during resettlement, some indigenous people never reached the villages and “got stuck” in the mountains. Others, after their life in Esso and Anagvay, reached pension age and gradually started settling down in the old camps. Legalisation of this “quiet” rejection of indigenous people occurred in the following way.

First, at the recommendation of the Ministry of Agriculture in 1992 the so-called “farming households” were officially registered in 1992, a total of 34 farms. Subsequently, in connection with the adoption by the Kamchatka Region in 1997 of the regional laws “On the Territories of Traditional Subsistence” and “On Territorial-Economic Communities of Indigenous Minorities in the Kamchatka Region” those “farming households” were registered anew as “clan communities”. Currently, there are 58 such camps in the Bystrinskiy District, where the majority of the adult indigenous population reside, permanently or temporarily. Schoolchildren go to schools in Esso and Anagvai. In winter, some adults live together with them. On the average, the indigenous people in the villages have two thirds less dwelling space than newcomers. The dwellings are mostly old and lacking basic amenities.

The founding documents of many clan communities say “reindeer herding”. But there are no reindeer. The people are mostly engaged in fishing and hunting. In spring residents of the camps mostly starve. The administration does not care for them – “they are farmers now”. In the winter 1999 I was approached by a mother of a large family, who was denied pension for loss of the breadwinner on the ground that “you, farmers should have an insurance fund of your own”. But the farmers got nothing and that suited everybody. The reason for that outrage might have been more serious. It was suggested that that widow should give up the right to her plot of land and then “everything would be O.K.” As long as indigenous people own their plots they need to be asked permission for, say, development of mineral resources. But despite pressure, the people will not give up their plots.

They can be understood. I had the chance of visiting several remote camps in November-December 1999. Every camp is a beautiful nook. Each has a unique isolated world of its own. Many people live in camps for dozens of years and they settled down fairly well. At camps there are numerous buildings, both dwellings and agricultural buildings – semi-subterranean and pile buildings. In open pile shelters are hung out embroidered clothes, and sable pelts. It is very clean there. Village life is unbearable for camp residents. In camps they live in harmony with each-other and nature. In the village, they are afraid of wolves and bears, while at camps we saw old women (the men are away hunting), afraid of nothing. Here is a typical conversation recorded in the river Shanuch, near a hill which many people have long been trying to acquire. The hill contains nickel deposits, they have been long prospected for to be found commercially non-important. Before my trip, I had heard some talk about that hill to the effect that the person who expects to get it hopes to become rich. But the hill belongs to the clan land of Alla Nutangovna; it is opposite to her home and she has been living there for 41 years. She settled down in that place when nomadic Koryaks were, for some reason, moved to the Bystrinskiy District from the neighboring Sobolevsky District. She lives there together with her son, who returned from the hunt during our arrival. When we were speaking about the hill she remembered the geologists who worked there for some time, whom she fed and cared for when they were working there. She was laughing, thinking of them – she treated them as her guests, as her children, who always needed help.

“Alla Nutangovna, they say they are going to dig up your hill.

- I can’t give up my hill, this is my TV set.

- How is that?

- I look out of the window and see what weather it will be, what animals are walking there.

- And what animals?

- Foxes, hares and bears.

- And bears?

-Yes…they are walking quite near, they even come to my window.

- And you are not afraid?

- No. There is nothing to be afraid of. He knows that I won’t shoot.”

And so they live in friendship with the bear. Old people who have not seen reindeer meat for a long time only sigh, and old women complain that they have no material to make new fur boots and kukhlyankas (fur undergarments). In fact, after the slaughter, the administration sells the hides to traders, or in case they fail to do that, the hides are left to rot.

Hence, reindeer herders dream of reviving traditional small-scale reindeer herding by the old time-proven method, which they used as late as the collective farm period in 1959-1960. When the deer in the herd grew smaller in number?, the best herdsmen were sent up north, where they purchased 700 reindeer in the Penzhinsky District and after two years of migration, almost 3000 dear were driven home. This story is told children as a legend, something that nourishes people’s hope for the future. That is how the past of reindeer herders of the Bystrinskiy District looks like, and such are the dreams of its revival in the future.

In 1999 there appeared grounds to believe that the hope would come true.

In 1996 the five protected areas of Kamchatka were included into the UNESCO World Heritage system. It became possible after the long-term efforts of scientists and the public to call attention to the unique nature of Kamchatka and the problems adverse to its conservation. Since 1997, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Ecological Fund (GEF) developed the strategy for the conservation of biological diversity in Kamchatka. The Russian Government and the administration of Kamchatka proposed two programmes: “Conservation of Biodiversity of the Four Protected Areas of the Kamchatka Region” and “Conservation and Management of the Biodiversity of the Salmonid Population in the Kamchatka Peninsula”. The first programme concerned nature parks and zapovedniks of the Central Kamchatka, including the Bystrinskiy Nature Park, which is part of the Bystrinskiy District. The main purpose of both programmes is to create in Kamchatka conditions for the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, but also the creation of alternative sources of livelihood for the population. Those programmes were alternative to predatory use of resources. The programmes are designed for 10 years. It is planned to allocate considerable funds for their implementation.

It has long become common knowledge for the world community that environmental welfare is intimately related to the welfare of indigenous people leading a traditional mode of life. Hence, the Convention on Biological Diversity included a special article on the preservation and maintenance of the experience and knowledge of the indigenous people in nature management.

The UNDP-GEF programmes have been compiled in conformity with the principles of that international convention. Hence, it contains a special section and a special line in the budget concerned with indigenous peoples. At the current stage of the project this section is entitled: “Working out Recommendations on the Conservation of the Experience and Knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and Development of their Potential for Self-Support”. A contest was conducted in Kamchatka in order to reveal an indigenous expert who could write such recommendations for all the project zones. But presumably, the applicants did not clearly understand the tasks of the UNDP and GEF experts. An expert not only needed to be knowledgeable about the problems of indigenous peoples of all the zones of the project but also be able to turn those problems into projects of the development of indigenous peoples with special reference to the conservation of biodiversity on the basis of peoples’ potential and the needed funds. The programme organisers consulted me as a specialist on the ethnography of the indigenous population of Kamchatka, and at the end of September 1999, they invited me to take part in the project as an expert on indigenous peoples.

The task proved very difficult even for a prepared person. I thought it was necessary to develop recommendations only for a joint discussion with representatives of indigenous peoples. For that I had to interview a number of people, to collect documented information in order to understand the reasons of the modern problems of indigenous peoples, to understand their intentions and potential and develop a strategy for the transformation of that information into projects in conformity with the UNDP-GEF requirements.

For the Bystrinskiy District we developed recommendations together with Valeriy Sankovich, whose serious and diligent contribution is very much appreciated. Together with him we visited several remote camps and met the indigenous residents of Esso and Anavgai. He helped me to understand the situation in a very short time.

Valeriy Sankovich is characterised by a very conscientious attitude to all his duties, including his voluntary position of President of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of Kamchatka. He has already done his best to solve the problem of supply to remote camps and he worked out a project for the development of factories. That project has won a competition to receive the first development grant from the state. One area of his activities is assistance to folk dancing and singing groups, folk craftsmen and many other things. He told me a story of his grandfather taking part in driving reindeer from the north. Yes, the core of development programme should become revival of the basis of traditional nature management of the region, that is, small-scale reindeer herding. That could reduce pressure on fishing and hunting resources, and promote more even distribution of environmental impact in general.

My task was to link the vital problems of indigenous people with the major objective of the UNDP programme – conservation of biodiversity – and the problem of the organisation of the participation of indigenous people in the conservation of biodiversity.

In November- December UNDP-GEF made it possible for me to come Kamchatka to collect some extra evidence. Together with Valeriy Sankovich, we spent two weeks discussing some concrete problems of indigenous people and how can they be fitted in the programme of the conservation of biological diversity. By late December it was necessary to prepare a report and recommendations for the execution of particular projects and their budget.

Unfortunately, the leaders of certain district associations of the Kamchatka Region did not understand that it was necessary to work against time. They would not come to the arranged meetings, would not send in their concepts, if only general, of the projects coming from their organisations. The last project of the Association of the Petropavlovsk-closest Elizovo District was received by me as late as May, and no budget, if only tentative, was supplied. In order to estimate the project budget, I needed various kinds of information: the price of snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles for many years ahead. I needed to know the prices of a radio station, a reindeer hide, freezing chamber, beads, sun-wind energy generator and many other things.

True enough, I was somewhat prepared for this sort of situation, knowing that things are done slowly in the North. But at the Coordination Committee meeting for the UNDP-GEF project in the February 2000, when time came to defend the prepared projects, those who failed to send in their applications on time came out against the entire UNDP-GEF project on the grounds that their problems had not been addressed. The reindeer herders of the Bystrinskiy District and the communities of other districts whose projects were discussed were disconcerted – the representatives of indigenous were trying at the very beginning to undermine their hopes for the implementation of the plans for revival.

The projects of the indigenous peoples of the Bystrinskiy District had other opponents as well. The administration concept of conservation, the experience and knowledge of indigenous people, and developing their potential for self-support was presented to the Park Administration of the Kamchatka Region to be included in the business plan of the Bystrinskiy Park Development Administration as alternative projects for indigenous peoples.

But first let me say something about the projects that were prepared jointly with the Association and included in my recommendations.In accordance with the requirements of UNDP-GEF, the Association of the Indigenous Peoples of the Bystrinskiy District proposed the following projects:

“Establishment of Nature Conservation Stations with Concurrent Sports Fishing Functions and Camps for Groups of Organised Ecological and Ethnographic Tourists on Clan Lands of the Indigenous People of the Bystrinskiy District”. That project envisaged support to all the camps of the Bystrinskiy District to supply transport, radio stations, obtaining of certificates of public inspectors for environmental protection, availability of such an inspector in each camp and his salary at the place of his/her residence. In fact, complete isolation of indigenous people in the Bystrinskiy Park area, lack of communication and protection of territories creates preconditions for the appearance of poachers, who make use of fishing and game resources of the areas that legally belong to indigenous people in exchange for staple goods or under the threat of weapons.

In order to supply to the camps with whatever they need, to maintain environmental protection, and to assist in the marketing of the products of traditional subsistence, the project “Development of Factory Service of Environmental Protection Stations and Camps of Indigenous People in the Bystrinskiy District” was proposed.

The major project for the development of traditional integrated nature management by indigenous people was revival of reindeer herding. Presented below is the complete budget of that project.

  • Purchase of 700 reindeer in northern Kamchatka: US$ 162000;
  • Travelling and living expenses for five herdsmen in the course of two-year migration – the driving of reindeer herd to the Bystrinskiy District: US$ 15000;
  • Wages to the herdsmen for two years: US$ 10000;
  • Veterinary service during the migration: US$ 1500;
  • Two snowmobiles and walkie-talkies: US$ 9000.
  • During the migration, an expansion of the purchased herd by 3-4 times is envisaged. Upon driving of the herd to the Bystrinskiy District it is planned to graze reindeer for another year and, subsequently, distribute them among small-scale reindeer herding groups.

In terms of the development of tourism, also recommended were projects on support of the available folk singing and dancing groups, provision of craftsmen with the necessary tools and raw materials for the manufacture of souvenirs. Organisation of processing and marketing of the traditional subsistence products was included.

The main idea was that the organisations of indigenous people should execute their projects on their own. For that, organisation of a workshop of indigenous people and a special investment fund was planned.

That did not seem to suit many people, although there were other programmes on the development of alternate sources of subsistence for the creation of biological diversity, and those opposing the project could include their interests actually associated with environmental protection.

Alternative programmes for indigenous people of the Bystrinskiy District were as follows: Project 1, “Integration of Clan Communities Leading a Traditional Mode of Life and Reindeer Herders into a System of Park Protection; and Project 2, “Factory Service of Indigenous People Leading a Traditional Mode of Life ”.

Finally, a project on revival of reindeer herding included the following items:

  • 500 reindeer females from local herds and 50 males of Tofalar reindeer from the Irkutsk Region were purchased;
  • seven reindeer herders were employed and grazing of the herd near Esso and Anagvai organised;
  • two field houses for reindeer herders will be built;
  • reindeer have been prepared for riding and harness (sled);
  • some deer (400 head) were handed over in property of the reindeer herders;
  • reindeer herders begin grazing the herd on their own, on a self-repayment basis;
  • the administration employs a new group of reindeer herders for them to learn the skills of small-scale reindeer herding, environmental protection and tourism.

I felt awkward in front of the reindeer herders, who didn’t know what to say after they familiarised themselves with the above-mentioned document. They would say that the reindeer would not survive transportation by aircraft as was planned by the project. The reason is that reindeer would not be tied up, leading to their death. Those who would survive would still be doomed, because they could not become adjusted to a new place. The reindeer herders did not bring up the subject of their “learning the skills of small-scale reindeer herding” and subsequent “grazing of the herd on their own”; there is nothing that could be said politely, and reindeer herders are modest people with good manners…

I had to write an official review of those projects. I indicated that the cost of analogous projects of the Association of Indigenous Peoples would be a third or a fourth of this project, and that the costly construction mentioned in all the three projects is unfeasible in terms of the projects’ objectives, that the programme for improvement of reindeer herds through transportation of Tofalar reindeer was proved untenable as early as the 1980s when it was proposed, that the projects proposed are permeated with the spirit of paternalism, which is inadmissible in our time, that the projects initiated by the Association of Indigenous Minorities would be executed by themselves more successfully if they themselves were to be held responsible for the execution of those projects.

In February 2000, at the meeting of the Coordination Committee of UNDP-GEF we managed to win our case. In public, in front of the reindeer herders invited to the meeting by V. Sankovich, the Park Administration withdrew their draft projects on indigenous people. Today all the projects are studied by the UNDP-GEF experts, and those organisations would be financed by the those organisations, and they have the right of choice. But the indigenous peoples would not surrender either.

They have made the revival of reindeer herding in the Bystrinskiy District their business, and if they receive the founding capital they would be ready to execute their project on their own and they would account for the results.